Thursday, July 7, 2016

How is scripture fulfilled?

When we read in the new testament, "This happened to fulfill the scripture that says...," we typically read it in a way that the first century readers did not. We read the passage supposing that the way the New Testament writer used it is the same way the Old Testament writer intended it. If we read it that way, we are reading it wrongly. This conclusion came crashing down on me one day when I was sitting in on a Bible class on the book of Matthew. Then the text came to Matthew 2:14-15 (NRSV).
Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, “Out of Egypt I have called my son.”
The teacher said, "When you are doing your private studies and you encounter something that fulfills an Old Testament Scripture, you should look it up. You will see how the events in New Testament times were truly foretold in the Old Testament. It is a real faith builder."

I decided to go ahead and follow the teacher's advice right then and there. I checked the cross reference in my Bible and looked up Hosea 11:1-2.
When Israel was a child, I loved him,
    and out of Egypt I called my son.
The more I called them,
    the more they went from me;
they kept sacrificing to the Baals,
    and offering incense to idols.
Wow, I thought. That's not about Jesus. The writer of Matthew completely misquoted Hosea! This is not really helping my faith, teacher. I did a quick mental "inspiration" adjustment with, "Well. While it is true that we don't use scripture that way, the inspired writer of Matthew was better qualified than I to stretch it the way he did." In the mean time, I kept a close eye on the New Testament - watching for "fulfilled Scripture."

One passage in James really helps to clarify our thinking on the phrase "was fulfilled."
Was not our ancestor Abraham justified by works when he offered his son Isaac on the altar? You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was brought to completion by the works. Thus the scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness,” and he was called the friend of God. (Jam 2:21-23)
James quoted Genesis 15:6. It is not a prophecy and it is not something that needed to be "fulfilled." James is not implying that Abraham fulfilled a prophecy when he believed God. What he is doing in this case is quoting the passage in order to conclude his argument and also to give it more weight.

"Fulfill" does not mean that the current point is a prophecy that is now coming true. The usual meaning is that the current point can be rephrased in classical Old Testament language. It is quoted for its rhetorical impact.

Today, instead of saying "fulfilled" we would probably say "We might verbalize the current point in classical Old Testament verbiage" or, "I am reminded of the text" or "This idea gives new meaning to the Old Testament saying."

We often say contemporary things in phrases that have become classic. When I make an elaborate plan and it fails, I often say, "Oh, the best laid plans of mice and men." I don't mean the original poet had my situation in mind. I am recycling his excellent verbiage and applying it to my situation.

You may have heard an energetic preacher speaking of a difficult situation and calling upon the church for prayer and then start quoting the poetry, "Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord." He does not mean that he hopes the Civil War will soon be over. He means he hopes God will speed up the end of a current problem.

So, what was the writer of Matthew doing by applying Hosea 11:1 to Joseph, Mary and Jesus' trip to Egypt? In simple terms, the Egypt trip reminds the writer of the words he read in Hosea. On a slightly more sophisticated level, he may be thinking of the Egypt trip as a kind of reenactment by Jesus of the Exodus.

I will take a look at a few more just so you can get a feel for it. There are some "it was fulfilled" passages that are a little more complex to dissect and will thus make this article cruelly lengthy. (I am thinking of Luke 4:18-19).
Mat 1:21-23
"She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet:
“Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,
and they shall name him Emmanuel,”
which means, “God is with us.”
The original passage (Isaiah 7:14) is a sign for King Ahaz. In that day, Judah was threatened by a war against an alliance of Syria and Israel. Isaiah informed Ahaz that the Syrio-Ephraemite threat would be no longer a threat. God would remove the threat soon. Isaiah challenged Ahaz to ask for a sign connected with God's intention. Ahaz refused, so Isaiah indicated a young woman, possibly a woman they both knew. Maybe she was on her way to her wedding. Isaiah said she would get pregnant and have a child. By the time the boy is weaned, God will have removed the treat of the alliance (Isaiah 7:16).

The writer of Matthew connected Isaiah 7:14 to what the angel told Joseph in his dream. The language fits while the situation does not. Joseph received news about an important pregnancy and Isaiah's words are fitting even if not a perfect match. The writer quoted the Greek version of Isaiah 7:14 because the Greek uses the word "virgin" and Mary was a real virgin - not just a young woman. The writer invoked classical Old Testament out-of-context language because it fit the current situation. It is not a precise fit. Otherwise, Joseph and Mary would have named the child "God-with-us" (Emmanuel) instead of "Deliverer" (Jesus).

Here is an interesting one.
Mat 2:3-6
When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet:
‘And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for from you shall come a ruler
who is to shepherd my people Israel.’ ”
Herod's aids identified the location of the birth of the Messiah as Bethlehem. The passage they quoted is Micah 5:2. Micah 5 is kind of Messianic but not necessarily. Bethlehem is definitely connected with the family of King David. The deliverer in Micah 5 is described as a war hero. It looks like the Jews' expectation of a war-hero Messiah was anticipated by their reading of Micah 5. Jesus was, in fact, born in Bethlehem because he was from the family of David. It strikes me as almost coincidental that Herod's aids correctly located the birthplace of the Messiah by quoting Micah 5. Their reasons were different from the actual reasons for Bethlehem being the birthplace of Jesus. (Not all Gospel writers agree on this detail, by the way. That gives me an idea for another article.)

This next example highlights the true writing art of the Gospel writer.
Mat 2:16-18
When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men. Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah:
“A voice was heard in Ramah,
wailing and loud lamentation,
Rachel weeping for her children;
she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.”
By now, you expect me to tell you that Jeremiah 31:15 has nothing to do with Herod's evil act. Your expectations are not in vain. Jeremiah, it turns out, is doing something very similar to what the Matthew writer is doing. He is connecting something classical to an immediate situation. Jeremiah is weeping over the devastating destruction of Judah by the Babylonians. In that section of Jeremiah, God is revealing his plan to restore Judah to her land. Thus, Jeremiah should feel some encouragement. Why does Jeremiah use words that describe Ramah and Rachel's weeping?

Well, that tradition goes back to Genesis 35:19-20. Rachel died in childbirth. With her last breath, she named her son "Son of sorrow" but Jacob altered the name to "Son of my right hand" (Benjamin). She was buried just outside of Bethlehem and the writer says the grave was there "to this day." Thus, Rachel's grave was a lasting monument and people visiting the site would remember her sorrow. Her burial site, we suspect, became a monument to sadness. There is also a town town near Bethel by the name of Ramah that was part of the Benjamin tribal inheritance; but Ramah is also a descriptive title of any small town that is built on a hill. Judges 20 details a civil war that nearly exterminated the tribe of Benjamin. The Israelites wept for the loss of their brethren (Judges 20:26-28; 21:2). So, Ramah became known for weeping for Benjamin, Rachel's last child.

Jeremiah combines Rachel's weeping in connection to Benjamin's birth and Israel's weeping for the tribe of Benjamin. He applies that grief to the grief he feels for the loss of Judah to the Babylonians.

Then, the Matthew writer invokes Jeremiah's poetry and applied it to the Herod's atrocity.

So, Matthew 2:17-18
Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah:
“A voice was heard in Ramah,
wailing and loud lamentation,
Rachel weeping for her children;
she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.”
can be paraphrased as...
This terrible thing that Herod did brings new meaning to the words of Jeremiah:
"A voice was heard in Ramah...."
The connection is even more poignant since there is a monument to weeping just outside of Bethlehem.

Here is one that is applied to Judas.
John 13:18
I am not speaking of all of you; I know whom I have chosen. But it is to fulfill the scripture, ‘The one who ate my bread has lifted his heel against me.’
The quote is from Psalm 41:9. In that Psalm, the psalmist has a disease. Bosom friends from his own household are visiting him, acting like they hope he gets better; but secretly, they hope he dies. The Psalm is clearly not about Jesus. Jesus did not die from a nasty disease (Psalm 41:8) and he was not a sinner (Psalm 41:4). Judas fulfilled the scripture because the scripture is easily quoted out of context to apply to Judas.

There are many examples and I have probably worn out my welcome by citing so many already. It is worth observing that this kind of Scripture citation was effective in persuading Jews of God's work in their day, as evidenced, for example, by Peter's sermon in Acts 2. On the other hand, New Testament preachers did not spend a lot of time arguing from the Scriptures when they were trying to persuade Gentiles (Acts 17:22-31).

Today, we need to acknowledge the Jewish appreciation of "fulfilled" Scripture and try not to bend the Old Testament into our own expectations. Having a Bible study with an unbeliever and pointing out all the Old Testament Scriptures that Jesus "fulfilled" is dishonest. By Western academic method, such arguments are really unpersuasive, unless you obfuscate the original meaning of those passages.

One of the themes in the John Gospel is belief. In particular, a very strong reason for people to believe in Jesus is because of his good works. The man Jesus healed of a lifelong blindness told the council of Pharisees,
Here is an astonishing thing! You do not know where he comes from, and yet he opened my eyes. We know that God does not listen to sinners, but he does listen to one who worships him and obeys his will. Never since the world began has it been heard that anyone opened the eyes of a person born blind. If this man were not from God, he could do nothing. (John 9:30-33)
Jesus told the Jews,
If I am not doing the works of my Father, then do not believe me. But if I do them, even though you do not believe me, believe the works, so that you may know and understand that the Father is in me and I am in the Father. (John 10:37-38)
We are encouraged to believe Jesus because of his works; and that's a pretty good reason to believe!

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